Norwegian folk music, polytonality, and lowering the divorce rate: part 2

In the second part of this two-part blog, cellist Zoe Martlew tells us what happens when Norwegian folk fiddler Nils Økland meets the London Sinfonietta in preparation for the first event at Written/Unwritten

Nils learns all his melodies by ear, and found it strange that we preferred to learn by seeing the written notes first. Composer Charlie Piper was present to help bridge the gap, but it made me aware of the tremendous aural memory required of the folk musician. At least two of our group has perfect pitch – Sam Walton, percussionist and Joan Atherton, violinist, and were able to copy melodies straight off. However, as Joan explained, having perfect pitch can sometimes cause problems when it comes to retuning the instrument, customary left hand finger positions producing different sounding pitches with each scordatura and potentially causing confusion. In the end it wasn’t necessary to retune the strings and we all managed to memorise quite a collection of Nils’ pieces in a short space of time: a “Lazy” tune, with polytonal structures and a lilting rhythm amplified by foot beats; a religious melody so lost in antiquity that heated arguments abound in the Norwegian folk music community about the correct way to play it; a lively running theme with foot stomping dance rhythms; a “grey” melody to be played at 4 in the morning at weddings and a piece of Nils’ own called Blond Bleu after a painting by Lars Hertervig. Now considered one of Norway’s greatest artists, Hertervig was so poor in his lifetime he was unable to afford paper and paint, so made his own from crushed tobacco paper and natural pigments.  For me this painting perfectly evokes the beautiful and mysterious melancholy of so much of the Hardanger music we have heard.

Blond Bleu by Lars Hertervig, which inspired Nils’ original composition.
Blond Bleu by Lars Hertervig, which inspired Nils’ original composition.

The modes Nils used were not all familiar to me. One appeared to be a Dorian scale with the first five notes of an E major scale stuck on top, for example, another a mix of two completely different modes. However, I did find myself playing a drone D and A fifth for a fair amount of our improvised sessions and wondered yet again at how often this happens in so many folk traditions: middle eastern, central European, Celtic and by extension in modern film scores where a D bass drone seems de rigour (I speak from hard won film session experience). Perhaps the ancient idea of modes being associated with “the humours” is not so far off. D associated with tragedy, and so on. Nils said that several of his melodies had been influenced by Middle Eastern traditions (would be fascinating to know where, how and when) that can be heard in certain microtonal ornamental inflections.

In order to avoid the danger of us becoming a mere backing band for the distinctive Norwegian colour world, and me going crazy with Dorian mode pedal notes, Sam Walton our percussionist suggested we experiment further with harmonic modulation within the improvisations. John Constable began to add more jagged thematic gestures on the piano, and in the strings we started to use more of the extended techniques discussed earlier and move away from a purely modal tonality. Nils himself is no stranger to other ways of playing, improvising regularly with jazz musicians, free improvisers and once in a punk band, as have I (a band called “Liebeskind” which was unbelievably loud, bad, entirely made up on the spot and unsurprisingly lasted for only 3 gigs. Our first album cover was to have featured our Belgian lead singer carrying the placenta of her newly born daughter. Mercifully, the idea and the band sunk without trace). At one point Sam and I did a high octane piano cello improv moving far away from folk genre, and in much more familiar musical territory for us. Interestingly, Nils said that he finds free improv much harder to do than folk or jazz. Such differences are what makes the collaboration compelling, and spark off new possibilities in making music for us all.

After coffee and cake from the nearby fabulous Konditor and Cook, we discussed the outline of our concert in June and how to balance improvised and written music. We came up with a programme including Stravinsky’s wonderful Three Pieces for String Quartet; two Aphex Twin pieces for piano; the ever popular Fratres by Arvo Pärt, and some music by young Norwegian composers plus the new works created from our group ensemble improvisations at the two day workshop.

We round off our two days of collaboration with a foot stomping wedding tune. The Hardanger folk fiddler traditionally sits down to play. In the past Norwegian weddings would have lasted for at least a week, many people travelling for days on foot over the mountains to reach the party. Once ecsonced, the musician would be playing for hours, hence the need to sit down and presence of “four o’clock in the morning ‘grey’ tunes” previously mentioned. There is a belief that the divorce rate is now much higher in Norway because weddings are now far shorter and don’t allow people the chance to get to know each other as well. It’s nice to think that such hauntingly beautiful music not only can keep trolls at bay but also maintain marital stability. Couples are welcome to put the theory to the test at Kings Place in June.

Don’t miss the results of this unique collaboration at Written/Unwritten on 2 June 2011.

Click here to find out more about London Sinfonietta’s Written/Unwritten festival at Kings Place, and to view for more photos from this first collaborative workshop.

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